Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Here's to the Girls Who Stay Smart

September 17, 2011

from Rosanna Gamson's' Layla Means Night Photo: Steven Gunther
REDCAT’s NOW Festival rolled into its second weekend on Thursday with what turned out to be a promising and often exciting program from two artists with ties to CalArts and their many collaborators. The evening started off with the always visually arresting work of Rosanna Gamson and her World Wide troupe of dancers and actors. The 25 minute dance piece, entitled Layla Means Night, bore many hallmarks of Gamson’s prior projects. It is undoubtedly a dance work, but there is spoken dialog, live music, and numerous props and set design elements that push the performance into something more. The work is a riff on Kitāb alf laylat wa-laylah or One Thousand and One Nights. The performance opens with a blond woman in a red dress angrily slicing oranges and juicing them as a man in a suit closely monitors her from behind. Soon we learn through a narrator that the name Layla is also the Arabic word for night. Gamson, as like other adapters of One Thousand and One Nights is more interested in the frame story of Scheherazade spinning her nightly tales to her new husband in order to prolong her life and avoid the fate of the numerous newlywed virgins the king has killed before her. And from the outset it is clear that this story will be about women in general and that an everywoman, Layla, is as relevant as Scheherazade whose name is never mentioned in the work.

But what feels new here is Gamson’s interest not just in Scheherazade, but the sexual politics of the frame story’s background. The show’s opening narration explains how the king came to be betrayed by his first wife and had her killed before traveling the world with his brother and eventually deciding that all women would be just as unfaithful to him. The male narrator is joined by multiple tall female dancers dressed in elegant evening wear as the story unfolds about the king’s serial murder of virgins the morning after their wedding him. The narration is taken over in part by a woman in a white dress who is standing in for Scheherazade and addresses her stories not to the king, but to her own younger sister, played by a young girl in the performance. As she begins to prolong her life through the repeated tales, the subsequent stories in Layla Means Night aren’t given plots but are replaced with choreographed segments for the dancers. Gamson doesn't take everything too seriously here, though, and the ongoing narration is as likely to undercut events with a smile as it is to make a larger meaningful point. There is a real power and beauty in the piece which seems to unfold in multiple directions simultaneously despite its brevity. There was a sense that this is a first step in a larger project, but it was a great way to start.

D. J. Mendel and Jillian Lauren in Cattywampus Photo: Steven Gunther
After a break, the audience returned for an hour-long, one-act, three-character play by Robert Cucuzza, Cattywampus. Cucuzza’s name has long been associated with some of the most terrible of enfants in the theater world including Richard Foreman and the Elevator Repair Service (ERS). So that Cattywampus is a campy poke in the ribs of theater history is to be expected. The target here is August Strindberg’s late 19th-century tale of sexual and class politics Miss Julie. But Cucuzza has broadly adapted the tale, moving it to a modern-day Pennsylvania car dealership. The middle class front office worker Julie, is seducing car detailer Donnie at the expense of his flirtation with Chrissie who appears to just have stepped off the set of Jersey Shore with feathered hair and all. There was musical accompaniment throughout the entire performance, reinforcing the proceedings with blues and folk inspired plucking. It’s a great and rather edgy idea that is going for laughs more than intellectual insight. However there is a delicate balance here. Lower class American stereotypes will only get you so far these days without seeming obvious. Cucuzza avoids this pitfall by preserving much of the commentary on sexual power dynamics, and the physical grappling and explicit language certainly go farther than Strindberg’s play did. The show is peppered with some unexpected dancing that will remind viewers of ERS shows. And all three actors, D. J. Mendel, Jillian Lauren (Julie), and Jenny Greer (Chrissie) were marvelous, never overplaying their hand with the material. But above all Cattywampus is sharp-witted with a keen perspective and, with a little more development, could be a major success in a much broader context. This weekend’s program will run again Saturday night.

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